One of the few universally accepted truths about the COVID-19 pandemic is this: Heat and face masks generally aren’t a great combination.
So, with hot and sticky conditions forecasted for Thursday, Manheim Central School District Superintendent Peter J. Aiken made the call Wednesday morning to shift all high school students online for the following day. Manheim Central schools are closed today.
Manheim Central High School is one of eight Lancaster County public schools without air conditioning. Other non-air-conditioned schools belong to Elizabethtown Area School District — Mill Road and Rheems elementary schools — and School District of Lancaster — Buchanan, Burrowes, Hamilton and Wickersham elementary schools, and Wheatland Middle School.
With universal face coverings in the form of masks or shields required in Pennsylvania schools essentially all day, except when students are eating or drinking or during brief "mask breaks," officials at those school districts have had to brainstorm backup plans in case the heat got too unbearable inside their classrooms this fall.
“It’s already pretty hot in that building,” Aiken said. “… You’re wearing a mask on top of that. We decided it would be prudent to shift and have a virtual day.”
Manheim Central students who opted for the in-person option this fall thus made a one-day switch to the district’s online program, which already existed for students who chose to learn remotely this fall. Students were expected to participate in four hours of synchronous, or real-time, instruction, and two-and-a-half hours of asynchronous learning, Aiken said.
The district's $40 million high school renovation project, which will add air conditioning, was put on hold when the pandemic hit.
Foreseeing a predicament like Manheim Central found itself in this week, Elizabethtown Area this summer purchased 10 floor units, five per school, for most of the non-air-conditioned classrooms at Mill Road and Rheems, district spokesman Troy Portser said. Each unit cost $400 to $500.
Between the added units and already air-conditioned spaces like labs and the library, Portser said, “We have very few teachers that wouldn’t have the ability to utilize air-conditioned rooms.”
The added units put the school district in a “great position” not to have to close buildings due to heat, he said.
At School District of Lancaster, all students are learning from home, but teachers who didn’t request to work remotely are working on-site.
District spokesman Adam Aurand said administrators have had discussions about relaxing the dress code, dismissing early or closing schools entirely on hot days. But those conversations halted when the district went fully remote.
“If and when students return to buildings, I’m sure we’ll revisit that,” Aurand said.